A gruesome murder is the narrative backdrop to Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, a film based on Blake Nelson’s 2006 novel. When a security guard is found dead on the railroad tracks near “Paranoid Park” – an illegally built skate park under East Side Bridge in Portland, Oregon – the skateboard community at a local high school is called in for questioning. But the focus of the film is not the investigation. Rather, it is the inchoate inner struggle of Alex Tremain, an endearingly sleepy, shaggy-haired 16-year-old skater linked to the murder by a discarded skateboard found near the crime scene. In line with Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), Paranoid Park is another example of Van Sant’s A-Game; “A,” of course, standing for “adolescence” and “alienation” – a few of the celebrated indie director’s favorite themes. Driven by the highly stylized cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the film is a masterfully crafted ode to teenage estrangement.
Van Sant acquired most of the Paranoid Park cast through MySpace. Alex, our lethargic protagonist, is played by Gabe Nevins, a local Portland skateboarder recently turned amateur actor. Nevins’s unnatural presence in front of the camera, in tandem with his rushed and stumbling voice-over narration, effectively conveys the feeling of adolescent awkwardness to the audience. (Hopefully, this reaction has more to do with Van Sant’s audacious casting decisions and less to do with the fact that I feel perpetually stuck in this same state).
Alex’s impassive expression and slouching, baggily-clothed body dominate the film’s physical space for the majority of the scenes. His social interactions are captured in static frames devoid of reaction shots, emphasizing his social estrangement. Whether he’s eating with his family, hanging out with a skateboard buddy, or getting intimate with his virginal girlfriend, Alex appears distant and unengaged.
Seen through Alex’s eyes, life in Portland can be summed up by the opening still of St. John’s bridge, which appears hauntingly stagnant though it is shot in fast-motion. However, the footage of skateboard hubs is notably different: still frames are replaced by hypnotic, slow-motion long-shots following skateboarders as they glide up and down ramps, half-pipes, and empty pools. Breaking up the dull reality of Portland, these dream-like sequences point to skateboarding as Alex’s only vehicle for escape.
It is for this reason that, for the majority of the film, Alex carries his skateboard around like a vital appendage. But when he finally makes it to Paranoid Park – the ultimate Portland skateboard hub – one evening, Alex chooses not to skate. Instead he sits on his board, silently observing the scene as he takes time to worry about his familial instability and sexual confusion – the canonical qualms of alienated youth. We see that, for Alex, the appeal of the hangout lies less in the skating and more in the comfort of a community of strangers and rejects who seem to “have it much worse.”
But the comfort that Paranoid Park offers is fleeting. As the evening’s events take a shocking turn for the macabre, Alex is ditched by his new friends from the Park and left alone to deal with trauma far beyond his maturity level. With an absent father, a preoccupied mother and a hot but brainless girlfriend, Alex can think of no one to turn to for help. He is forced to deal with his horrific memories by writing them down, despite the fact that he admittedly “didn’t do so well in creative writing.”
Based on Alex’s patchy recollections, the plotline of Paranoid Park is marked by Memento-esque temporal discontinuity. Van Sant compensates for Alex’s ineptitude as a story-teller by expressing the coming-of-age story through the contrast between Christopher Doyle’s lush, saturated cinematography and a jarring soundscape; slow-motion footage causes words to fall out of sync with their speakers. The anachronistic soundtrack of Nino Rota, borrowed from 1960s Fellini films, creates an air of surrealism.
Although by the end of the film Doyle’s slo-mo shtick treads the line between inspired and dull, Paranoid Park is generally effective in maintaining audience engagement by making us feel constantly disjointed and out of place. Our sense of empathy for Alex is irrepressible as Van Sant stitches together an amalgam of incongruous images and sounds. The resulting patchwork envelops the audience in a sense of harsh estrangement throughout the majority of the film, but finally manages to provide a bit of comfort in a single tender moment of consolation between friends.
True, the whole “loss-of-innocence-thanks-to-a-corpse-on-a-railroad-track” thing was already done in Stand By Me, but nevertheless, as far as coming-of-age films go Paranoid Park certainly does not risk triteness. Assuming a relatively high intelligence level among his audience, Van Sant leaves the narratives open-ended, and any implicit messages remain quietly understated. Rather than being told what to think, the audience is skillfully guided through the thought process of an inarticulate teenage boy as he comes to the harsh realization that there may be “different levels of stuff” in the world.
Paranoid Park is currently playing at Cinema du Parc (3573 Parc) and AMC Forum (2313 Ste. Catherine O.).